Wife Abuse, Drugs and Silence

Last year Marlene Wagshall, a 28-year old Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, took one of her husband’s guns out of the cabinet, loaded it, and shot him. Why? He says she did it in a jealous rage after discovering a photograph of one of his girlfriends. Friends of Marlene Wagshall know better; the man was a known wife abuser. In fact, social workers had been alerted to the situation earlier, and have said that Wagshall had not responded to appeals to stop beating his wife.

Last November, a Jewish couple in New York City, Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, were arrested for the murder of their illegally adopted daughter, Elizabeth. Steinberg, a criminal lawyer, and Nussbaum, a former children’s book editor, are believed to be drug abusers and possibly members of a sadomasochistic cult.

Wife abuse, domestic violence in the Jewish home? Is it possible? What about the long-held belief, passed on by generations of Jewish mothers, that Jewish men make the best husbands because “they don’t drink, they don’t run around, and they don’t beat their wives”?

The reality can be very different. “There is domestic violence in 15 to 19 percent of Jewish homes in this country,” says Barbara Harris, executive director of the Transition Center, a kosher shelter for battered women and children in Queens, New York. But nobody likes to talk about it. “Jews as a group take a lot of pride in looking good,” explains Julie Spitzer, associate rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, and author of Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism (1985). “We don’t like to think Jews do evil things.”

But Jews — like others — are capable of evils such as battering, just as they are susceptible to the substance abuse that may go along with it. According to a study compiled by Melissa Eddy, training director of the Texas Council on Family Violence in Austin, Texas, “There seems to be a 60 to 80 percent correlation” between domestic violence and substance abuse. A similar study in New York indicated that drinking is involved in about 50 percent of spouse abuse cases and up to 38 percent of child abuse cases. But whether or not the substance abuse is the cause of the violence is unclear.

Still, it’s important to look at the correlation and try to understand why Jews might turn to alcohol or drugs in the first place. Perhaps the stress of the modern world is a factor. As Jews become more and more involved in the secular world, and have the same concerns about work, success and family as anyone else, they may also turn to drugs or alcohol for solace.

But perhaps there is something else at work here: a sense of inadequacy that Jews feel, at bottom, because they are Jews, points out Marcia Cohn Spiegel, founder of the Alcoholism Advisory Board of the Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles. “The Jewish component of alcoholism is guilt and shame,” says one man with 20 years of recovering sobriety and a lifetime of glittering success in the entertainment industry. “You drink because you feel inadequate, never a whole person as a Jew in this world, powerless, angry and impotent. Then you feel shame because you have always been told that ‘A shikkur is a goy’ (A drunk is a non-Jew).” More shame may lead to more alcoholism, and the pattern continues.

However, Harris, of the Transition Center, states that drinking or substance abuse alone does not cause a man to become a batterer. There is a correlation, she says, but “take the substance abuse away, and he’ll still batter. Bring it in, he batters with impunity.” It is a matter of rational choice. “I have a choice to batter or not to batter,” says Harris. “Whether I do it drunk or sober is my choice.”

Dr. Mitchell Wallick, executive director of Jewish Alcohol and Controlled Substance Foundation (JACS) in Manhattan, goes further: “Alcohol and substance abuse releases inhibitions. If a person has the predisposition to beat the crap out of you and his conscience says not to do it, then alcohol and drugs eliminate the inhibitions.”

Yet one hotline worker at Women Against Abuse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was struck by how often the abuser seemed to be operating with a well-thought-out plan of attack. In many cases, the abuser is conscious enough to batter his victim where the proof of violence is easy to hide. Whether he is drunk or high, he often has enough control to plan his assault.

But where does the desire (or need) to batter come from? Rabbi Spitzer suggests that the underlying issue is power and control: a man who feels powerless in the world — because of, say, lack of material success — needs to feel power over someone. He chooses a person who is physically or emotionally weaker than he is — a wife or child — on whom to exert his power.

Betty Aptaker, executive director of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Laurel House, a shelter for battered women, agrees that the problem stems from women’s position in society. For the battery to stop, “there must be a change in society where more equality is given to women and men have less the role of the dominator.”

Indeed, studies show that batterers have many characteristics in common, including low self-esteem, extreme need to be controlling, extreme possessiveness, and extreme jealousy.

Furthermore, the typical batterer believes that women need to be shown who’s boss; he believes that his wife has provoked him into abusing her. Still, he typically feels very remorseful after an abusive attack. He hates being out of control, he says, but he believes that he and his wife can handle the problem alone and that they do not need professional help. He swears he loves his family.

“We are not looking so much at why men are doing this,” says Carole Sher, a social worker at the Abused Spouses Counseling Program at Long Island Jewish Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York. “We look at why she stays. Our focus is on the victim.” Still, although Sher’s program includes long-term therapy for the couple, her first step is to split up the husband and wife. “The main issue is her safety and her learning to deal with her own feelings about what she wants,” she says. Besides, “It’s hard to get the abuser into therapy” right away.

According to Dr. Wallick, the best first step is to treat the chemical abuse that may be at the root of the problem. “It’s like a screen,” he says. “You can’t deal with the battering until the substance abuse is removed.”

There are, however, many theories on how to solve an abusive situation. Toby Myers, a former battered wife and now a spokesperson on domestic violence and the director of California-based Aid for Victims of Domestic Abuse, believes that help should start not with the victim but with the batterer. “People will get better when men come out and admit they’re battering,” Myers says. “Most battered women love their husbands and want to keep their marriages,” she says.

The experts believe that it is possible to end the abuse cycle without divorcing, but all agree that the couple in question must acknowledge the problem and ask for help. “There is help available,” Harris says. “It is not wrong for a woman to go outside her rabbi and ask. Rabbis and Jewish agencies do not have the training with domestic violence. It’s a specialized field.”

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert is trying to change that. She includes domestic violence as a topic in her classes at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, to “help rabbis understand,” she says. She also instructs rabbinical students to refer women to hotlines and agencies that are better trained to help with this particular issue.

Can religion offer solace or guidance to battered women? That depends on how it is applied, according to Rabbi Spitzer In her book, she writes, “Religion … can provide a source of hope and comfort for abused women, if its traditions are interpreted in a supportive and caring manner. Yet for others, organized religion has lost its meaning because they have been told by their priest, minister or rabbi to go back and be a ‘good wife.’… Religious advisors need to realize that faith may not protect an abused woman from the great danger she potentially faces…. It is feared that… especially among ultra- Orthodox and Chasidic Jews, the rabbis generally counsel the women to return to their husbands. Many women accept this advice without question. Special care must be taken to work with these women within their special frame of reference.”

Unfortunately, there are not many shelters that cater to observant Jewish women [see listings]. Most do not have religious services or kosher food. Still, there are a number of places that abused Jewish women can turn to for help.

It is a slow process, but the laws are changing to help battered women as well. For example, in New Jersey, the police must now arrest an abuser if the victim shows signs of injury. The arrest is mandatory, even without the woman’s complaint. The maximum sentence is six months in jail and an $1,800 fine. Furthermore, if the victim requests it, the batterer must receive counseling.

This is a good beginning, but it is only that. Rabbis need to be educated as to the existence of battering. Social workers, psychiatrists, medical and rabbinical teachers must also train their students to be aware of family violence. They need to believe those who seek help and to ask clients outright if physical abuse is a problem. People have to believe that battering occurs — even in Jewish families — before they can help.

Victims must believe it. Batterers must believe it. And Jewish leaders must believe it. Throughout history, Jews have come together to escape evil. Today we must do it again to chase domestic violence out of our homes. We’ve got to realize that peace on earth begins at home.

Elizabeth DeBeer is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. She has worked as a volunteer for an abuse hotline in Philadelphia.